The history of essential oils begins in ancient times. Long ago it must have been realized that the odors and tastes of plant materials were seasonal. Plants bloom only at certain times of the year. When cut, flowers deteriorate and their aroma is lost. To preserve the delicate smell of flowers, several methods were developed. In ancient countries of the Orient and the Mediterranean, flowers and other parts of plants were placed in fatty oils that were exposed to sunlight. The odorous constituents were taken up by the oil. This procedure was the first “enfleurage.” In later years this process was modified and refined. In certain instances it is still used.
Water extractions of plant materials were developed by the ancients to obtain medicinal teas intended to cure all kinds of ills. Distilled waters, for example rose water, were produced in the eighth and ninth centuries in Persia and used as a remedy for eye ailments. In ancient Rome a broth made from Allium cepa (an onion) was the household remedy for the common cold. Tea of pennyroyal and other herbs such as sage, cubeb berries, etc., were among the remedies used in colonial America. At that time the aromas of such hot concoctions, which are based on the release of essential oil content, were appreciated. Such primitive but practical approaches were precursors of steam distillation an important procedure to liberate essential oils from botanicals.